Considerations of Decency

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Jane Mayer's
"The Memo" (New Yorker, 2/27/06) tells the story
of Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the U.S. Navy. Mora appears
to have been equipped with a degree of principle far surpassing the
quota required by the average practitioner of government. He held
torture to be morally despicable, and during his time with the Navy
fought an uphill battle to keep government policy off the slippery
slope to Abu Ghraib. Mora's efforts were subverted by William Haines,
his boss at the Department of Defense, and ultimately by the Defense
Secretary himself, Vice-President Cheney, and their lawyers. The
torture "policy" that eventually slithered to the surface
is summed up best in Donald Rumsfeld’s handwritten aside on
a memo: "Carte blanche, guys."

Mora concludes
that in giving torture the nod, a group of "enormously hardworking,
patriotic individuals" inadvertently trashed American values.
They meant well, even as they were taking a truncheon to the
soul of the country they loved. As the Billie Holiday song
says: "Love will make you do things that you know is wrong." 
Yet it seems charitable to ascribe the misdeeds of Rumsfeld,
Cheney, and their lawyers to misguided patriotism. Too often their
love of country has resembled the self-interest Goneril and Regan
tried to pass off as filial love in King
Lear
. The Rumsfeld-Cheneys may have trumpeted their devotion
to America after September 11, but their actions have suggested a
devotion primarily to power — country has played second
fiddle.

And what of
"hardworking"? A favorite suggestion of the Cheney-Rumsfeld
school of public servantdom is that if only the cream of government
were not subjected to the vinegar of rules, laws, and regulations,
the governed could be blessed more regularly with its uncurdled
goodness. Much of the hard work, meanwhile, goes into arranging
for the governed to know less and less about what the cream
is up to. One can sympathize to some extent. Government officials,
like anyone else who is expected to do a good job, should be
granted sufficient privacy to work as freely and creatively as possible.
An urge to bend the rules or waive them altogether
is understandable when it is a matter of enabling good work to be
done better.

The good work
the Bush Administration is so eager to be left to its own devices
to do better is not readily apparent, however. Preemptive attacks?
Unimaginable debt? Crass manipulation of public and press? A steady
stream of inept comments, inane stunts, and insane war? Occupation?
Torture? Another song lyric comes to mind, Bob Dylan's "To
live outside the law you must be honest." Some people, Jesus
Christ for example, have managed it and others from Thoreau to Hunter
S. Thompson have given it a good run for the money. One is not convinced,
however, that the Rumsfeld-Cheney type is temperamentally suited
to live outside the law, much as it may yearn to. "Honest"
is not the word that springs to mind when considering the architects
of Carte Blanche Guys “policy."

Whether they
are or are not the well-meaning, hard-working, but misguided patriots
Mora says they are, one thing is now clear — they've dirtied
their hands and ours, not merely with the usual day-to-day grime
of politics but with the abhorrent scum of torture. ("We do
not torture," the President declared last November — an assurance
scholars of Bush-tongue duly parsed as a resounding confirmation
that we do.) How do you wash the scum off? How do you refute
the charge that the moral stink of torture competes with the moral
stink of September 11 itself — the very stink we declared war on?
(Lately we have been advised to settle in for the Long Stink.) The
perverse "vision" of a degenerate band of zealots
has been foolishly magnified by the perverse "vision"
of its adversaries, prompting many these days to wonder: with adversaries
like these, why would a bin Laden need allies?

One of the
most powerful books ever written on the question of torture is South
African J.M. Coetzee's Waiting
for the Barbarians
. The novel involves a provincial official
known simply as The Magistrate, who turns a blind eye when Colonel
Joll arrives from the capital. Joll is one of "the new men
of Empire…who believes in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages."
Sound familiar? And like so many of our Neo-conservative men of
Empire, he can enthusiastically wrap what's left of his heart around
torture. The Magistrate comes to regret his initial complicity with
Joll's methods. "I should never have opened the gates to people
who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency,"
he reflects. Ashamed, he takes a stand, and is brutally tortured
himself. But in the book's climax when the discredited Joll is driven
out, The Magistrate leans into his carriage and has the last word:
"The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves,”
he tells Joll. “Not on others."

Such messages
may be lost on the Gonerils and Regans, Cheneys and Rumsfelds, bin
Ladens and al-Zawahiris. Their ideologies allow no possibility that
they themselves might be in the wrong. They seem unaware of
or indifferent to "the crime that is latent within
us." They are unashamed of torture and unashamed to torture,
to take it out on others. They are ashamed of nothing, and may go
to their graves convinced they have nothing to be ashamed of. We
should be grateful, meanwhile, for people like Alberto J. Mora.
He may not have won the ear of his superiors, but he outranked
them in decency, for whatever it’s worth. Like Cordelia, he
had a heart, and his love for his country may one day ring truer
than that of his twisted sisters.  

February
27, 2006

John
Liechty [send him mail]
currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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